On experimentalism

In the current push of critiquing music, a few views have become old stand-bys:
  1. All music must be immediately relevant to a mythic, all encompassing audience. Most classical music, either from the past or currently written does not fit this mold
  2. The number one way to prove the relevancy and quality of a work is to show that it sells well. This means high ticket and record sales. To this end, it is obvious that classical music should adopt popular music models.
  3. Music education at the post-secondary level should be to prepare musicians for the business end of music, to train musicians to make a living in the arts after graduation. This ties directly into point 2, as the types of music studied, styles of courses, and various grading mechanism should be tied to economic success. 
  4. Differing views from the populist model are considered traditional, and the main reason people are against this model is due to their conservative streak. It's a new way of thinking, and therefore the more conservative minded are against it.
  5. We should exemplify organizations that have succeeded in creating money and popularity without criticizing their stance, or without researching and considering all of the pros and cons of those positions. Most importantly, it should be known that what works for one organization will work for all organizations, regardless of locale, clientele, or any other factors. 
  6. Experimental (read not traditional nor pop influence fusion), academic, post-tonal, musique concrete acoustique, spectralism, and any other movements in music function to alienate the audience, and therefore should be eschewed for styles of music more popular with the mythic audience.
These points are heavy handed reductions of the views I've been reading from critics, comments throughout the web, and conversation with musicians. Being heavy handed, they show my attitude quite clearly toward these simplified views. Let me continue to lay my hand on the table.

There's been a trend recently on this blog to explain positions that are outside the popular opinion of a small circle of respected critics. Most of these critics hail from the Eastern seaboard of the US, with a large concentration in the mid-Atlantic and NYC area. This NYC-centricity explains ideas that are most apt to that specific locale, and only describe a sub-section of all the people in the area. For every description of  dinner/concert production that has met with success, there are any number of new music groups performing difficult, interesting, and experimental works. For every pop oriented performance, there's a JACK quartet performing Helmut Lachenmann to rave reviews or Georg Friedrich Haas' tour de force String Quartet No. 3 to a packed house. This is to say that as critics try and create one image of the arts, a different image, held in a completely different dimension, seems to be moving along well. 

The populist view has a damning effect, which I attempted to articulate in part in my post on pandering. At an even earlier point, I attacked the idea of writing for an imaginary perfect audience. The rationale is simple: to write for a presumed perfect audience, a composer must be willing to move against his own ideas, and accept a cobbled-together, watered down, multiple choice test aggregate idea of what music is. This is where articles have been written specifically saying not to write or perform down to an audience. Simply put, if you're looking at the average of a wide demographic, it is easy to shoot for that average or the lower end of the average. That is, in effect, pandering: giving the audience what you think they want instead of giving the audience the highest caliber artistic experience possible. 

For composers to choose this path is their own prerogative. There are composers working in popular music genres, fusion genres, and all over that write compelling, interesting, and original music in those styles. They have an ability to find their own personal voice while navigating a narrow checklist of must haves when writing in particular genre. Not everyone can do this--not everyone can accept adding a bass drop and a dub style bass line to a pop song, even if it is in vogue. 

I'm reminded of an excellent blog-post by Alex Temple on cultural relevancy. As soon as the argument becomes about classical music being relevant, it's important to remember to ask "for whom?" Beyond that, it's important to go through what may or may not make the experience important to people. It could be the music, or the preconceptions about the music and its environment. The problem could, in fact, have nothing to do with the experience as it would happen, but the assumed ideas of people regarding the experience. 

This all bleeds into my ideas on education. I've been an active educator for quite some time, ranging from teaching private lessons and coaching ensembles at local middle school and high schools during my undergrad years, to teaching brass during marching season, to music appreciation at the college level (sometimes for high school students in special programs), and into teaching audio engineering, music technology, and composition. In Marek Poliks' ongoing series, he recently discussed how new music is academic music, and the inextricable ties between these two institutions.

It's true, new music is academic music. And the idea of new music, or perhaps we should say original music, is under attack.

Let's look first at the University system in America. There is the continued strife between "traditionalists," or those that like the idea of a broad, core curriculum (the liberal arts), and "academics" that want a curriculum with tighter specialized courses, but at the same time larger freedom for students to choose their path. There's also a trend toward looking at the economic success of alumni as a measuring stick for how well a college is doing. This can be simplified to a question: what is the purpose of higher education? Is it to learn skills to be successful in an economic sense? Is it to achieve a higher level of education, broad or specific? Is it to prepare a student for his/her chosen career path, whether or not that career path is economically viable? More and more questions arise from the simple question of "What is the purpose of higher education?"

This is hotly debated in music. DePauw University is currently changing their entire curriculum, and even though I'm an alumni, I have heard nothing regarding how it may change (nor much more than a basic survey regarding what I perceive I may have needed from the education to be successful as a musician). What I fear is a turn toward the populist economic model. David Cutler has written several articles (which I've linked before) that have some provocative ideas in them. And some of those ideas make me afraid for one of the main tenets I believe post-secondary education can provide for students:

A safe haven for experimentation.

There was a study published looking at what has been happening in popular music, specifically measuring the use of timbre, pitch, and dynamics, to see what has changed in the past 50+ years. The answers, summarized in the Smithsonian online magazine, has shown that timbre content has gone down, pitch content has gone down, and overall loudness (and compression) have gone up. Fewer pitches, fewer sounds, louder. 

There's been a similar movement in classical music. Starting after WWII, post-tonal theories were leading in new works. Serialism was still chugging along. The avant-garde was still working hard, producing works in new styles, including proportional notation, working with extended tuning systems after Harry Partch, Moving later in America, the avant-garde took a different approach, moving away from the densely packed machinations of their predecessors and into minimalism and post-minimalism. Minimalist works focused on process, a single idea taken through to it's logical conclusion (think, Clapping Music by Steve Reich or In C by Terry Riley). Or there were other takes, a more ambient, repetitive music that, occasionally, would shift slightly Post-minimalism took the idea, and toned down the nature of it. It turned, in a sense, to a modal music that was triadic in nature. What I mean is that while it took chords from tonal music, it did not adhere to the structure of tonal music. This was new to the classical music scene of the time, but it had been explored heavily, dating back to early triadic constructions (pre-Common Practice Era, or roughly 1600CE), and then again in jazz, most notably with Miles Davis' recording Kind of Blue. The first track of Kind of Blue, entitled So What typifies the idea of modal music. In this case, Davis uses only two chords, alternating between them. One could even make a claim that the jazz world predated the idea of Terry Riley's In C with Charle's Minguse's 1956 recording The Clown, especially the first track Haitian Fight Song (and further examples can be found throughout time, as ideas are recycled, altered, and gussied up for the new generation).

All this to point out that there was a reactive movement that started in the 60s and moved through the 70s and 80s in classical music away from a dense pitch construction, but retained the complexity of timbre and dynamics. The study about popular music didn't take into account rhythm, but one can see a squaring out of rhythms in classical music during this time period as well, sometimes as a mode of expression (in the harsh repetitive nature of early Philip Glass), or because of the aggregate end product was far more complex (Clapping Music and In C). At the same time, groups were experimenting in new modes of expression, including spectralism, among the many. Increases in technology made it easier for electronic music to be produced, and it was beginning to move further from the fringes of the avant-garde to a more mainstream avant-garde; away from being a sub-sub-genre, alienated even with the experimental community, to being accepted by the experimental community. But where is this incredibly abbreviated, and ham-handed history leading us?

Unlike what many populists purport, there has not been an industry wide attack on tonal, neo-Romantic, or any other type of music in academia. As aging serialist composers retired from teaching life, their students and the generation younger than them (who were still taught by the older powers), took a more holistic, inviting approach. Here's the disconnect I am seeing--not once in my lessons with composers young and old was I told not to write a certain style of music. Not once. And yet, critics seem to take a point in saying that composers are out of touch, that we force views on students like it's Darmstadt at its inception, that it's Pierre Boulez pre-correspondences with John Cage. And, in the place of serialism, they wish to raise up a new all-powerful master: music written for the imaginary perfect audience.

It will, of course, be accessible to all, unlike past music. It will follow trends in popular music. It will find ways to engage audiences in new ways, like playing in clubs or maximizing online resources.

It will be regressive, turning into a follower, not a leader. It will try to engage all people, while ignoring those already standing by its side. And it will discard all that has been for something new, because the past is over, and nothing can be learned or gained by examining it.

This is a problem. It's a problem because it takes a strong dogmatic stance, it raises one form of art over another as far as taste (not quality), and creates expectations of what artists will need without regard to the trade-offs. This is, of course, on the side of hyperbolic--I'm engaged not with the specific people involved, but with their marketed personas. What may be just another form of sensationalist media hides what could be amazing conversations with the greatest care and intent.

But it's important not to leave behind the spirit of true experimentation in all areas. And since experimental and new ideas are not immediately profitable, they come at odds with that line of thinking.

Touchscreens were patented in the US in 1967. The first commercial use of a touchscreen in a computer was in the early 1980s. They were a regular feature in certain GMC cars in the late 80s (Buicks, I believe. I have actually seen and touched one of touch screens). When was the first touchscreen phone? The early 90s with a prototype by IBM, some 10+ years before Apple's development of the iPhone. The original handheld mobile phones came out in the 1970s, and it wasn't until the 1990s that mobile phones became more widespread.

Early versions of these technologies were expensive to produce, and met with resistance from traditionally minded people. Technophobia is a normal condition brought on by rapid changes in technology--it's much easier to use what we are used to than to explore a constantly changing environment. The same is true in music.

The most well-documented and cited example may be Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. The piece was a radical departure from the norm of the time, exploring a more modal style of writing with repetitive chords, brash orchestration, (skip back to hear an explanation) and had an accompanying choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky that was as provocative as the music. And yet, 100 years after Rite of Spring premiered to riots and critical disdain, it has been embraced by the musical community as one of the greatest works of the 20th century. The acclaim came somewhat quickly, as after the dust had settled from the premiere, about a year later the concert version was meeting with more popular success. A year is a short time to wait if one writes a piece that is so provocative or experimental! But there are still many musicians who find this work to be challenging and progressive, even as it past it's 101st birthday.

What would happen to these works if they were tied perfectly to commercial success. Can we expect more composers like Stravinksy, who found collaborators with large purse strings, willing to fund the most forward thinking and experimental works? Or will we take the view of the large institutions in the US, a conservative viewpoint of Romantic repertoire being the large selling point, with the more populist pieces and well known living composers getting a small sampling of performances? Will we see another John Cage Concert for Piano, a work whose score involves as much drawing as standard notation, and each individual part can be played as a solo without the piano? And when will we see it? Will it be a Radiohead-esque experience, where the band writes the music that makes money, then turns more and more toward the experimental vibe they always wanted? Or will we, as certain composers such as John Adams claim, lead to a weakening of music by lack of forward movement?

And can something exist that walks the line between experimentation (in a personal and universal fashion) and traditionalism still be a strong piece?

In my next post, I'll talk more about my personal relationship with experimentalism, and how and where I'm seeing that spirit continue, either in small steps or giant leaps. I believe these examples will help clarify why I firmly believe that academia should not just become a way to churn out students with business sense and the ability to read market data and create a product that will sell for the radio, but to be a breeding ground for experimentalism in all its forms. This is especially true of personal experimentation, urging students to go far outside their comfort zone, examine new ideas, and work toward greater goals.

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